Winkler and writer Jay Cocks, taking their cue from "All that Jazz," if not the Ronald Reagan biography "Dutch," create the character of Gabe (the always terrific Jonathan Pryce), a theatre director who sits with an elderly Porter discussing an upcoming Broadway show based on his life. After Gabe and Cole consider a particular episode from Porter's past, the lights dim and the scene is played out in extended flashback form. The main action begins at a party in Paris where Cole meets gorgeous divorcée Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd). Although Porter is homosexual, Linda falls for his status and money, an arrangement that Cole also finds agreeable. The two marry and, as his career begins to take off, she struggles to find her place with a husband who'd rather be trolling for guys. Eventually, the Porters move to Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou) convinces Cole to degrade himself by writing dime-a-dozen movie tunes in exchange for a considerable paycheck. His time in Tinseltown ends when Irving Berlin (Keith Allen) facilitates Porter's to return to New York where success awaits, in the form of the 1928 Broadway show Paris.
The biggest problem with "De-Lovely" is that Winkler and Cocks almost convince us that, despite his secrets, success and tortured later life, Porter is not interesting enough to warrant big-screen treatment. Songs replace drama too often, which makes for a great soundtrack album but emotionless entertainment. The usually outstanding Kevin Kline is also questionable: Until a 1937 horse riding accident that kept him in pain for the rest of his days, Porter is just a one-note, happy-go-lucky guy with very little shading. He says everything with a smile, which renders him too paper-thin as a character. As for Judd, her Linda is poorly drawn, and since the actress has spent the last few years wasting her talent in forgettable cop thrillers, she seems ill-equipped to add something to a characterization that simply isn't on the page. Also, Cole has two best friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy (Kevin McNally and Sandra Nelson). Viewers will be hard-pressed to figure out what the hell they're doing in this movie, which makes it even harder to care when their young son meets a tragic end. Other supporting players are comprised of Cole's male lovers, none of whom come across as real people.
Director Irwin Winkler shows a clear and justifiable love for Porter's music, but except for some terrific motion-control shots, his approach lacks sufficient energy. Behind-the-scenes MVP is makeup artist Sarah Monzani, who ages Kline and Judd wonderfully.
In a move that MGM foolishly thinks will get a generation of hipsters to come to a Cole Porter movie, a bevy of contemporary warblers appear in the film singing Porter tunes. The best is Alanis Morissette's interpretation of "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." Less successful are Elvis Costello's version of "Let's Misbehave" and Lemar's rendition of "What is this Thing Called Love." In an era when "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" are what moviegoers seem to want in a musical, "De-Lovely" is going to be a tough sell. Tougher still when the movie is simply not very good. Starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. Directed by Irwin Winkler. Written by Jay Cocks. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan and Charles Winkler. An MGM release. Biographical Drama/Musical. Rated PG-13 for sexual content. Running time: 125 min